Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Bramwell Pummels Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg has a new book out called Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. I haven’t read it, nor do I have any intention of reading it. I’m familiar enough with Goldberg’s style and substance to expect a diatribe at about the Ann Coulter level. But Austin Bramwell, who is himself a conservative and a very bright and well educated guy, has read it and he absolutely blisters Goldberg for all of the intellectual sins I assumed he would commit in a review on American Conservative magazine.

Someone I know who liked the book told me all I needed to know about it by rehashing for me a list of arguments from the book tying progressives to eugenics, an argument that shows all the selective manipulation of evidence that the ID crowd shows when it blames evolution for eugenics and for Nazism. The response should be obvious: does one really need to list all of the conservative supporters of eugenics in order to balance off the argument?

It appears from Bramwell’s review of the book that Goldberg does exactly what I figured he would do, which is to blow up intellectual fads and pretend that they represent all liberals. We hear this all the time from the right, particularly the equation of post-modernism with liberalism; this is absolutely laughable to those on the left who have been foursquare against such relativistic nonsense from the start. Bramwell writes:

Goldberg falsely saddles liberalism not just with relativism but with all manner of alleged errors having nothing to do with liberalism. At one point, he exhumes the likes of Derrida and Foucault in order to pummel them once more for introducing postmodernism, deconstruction, and other continental horrors into the world. What this tiresome routine has to do with liberalism escapes the reader. From the outset, liberals opposed these fads as fiercely as conservatives. Just ask Ronald Dworkin or Brian Leiter. Goldberg, like many movement conservatives, grossly overestimates the influence of postmodernism, doubtless because avowed nihilists make such good straw men (if not good theater, as Derrida and Foucault well knew).

Perhaps Goldberg needs to be introduced to Paul Gross and Norm Levitt, whose book Higher Superstition eviscerates postmodernism’s views on science as “the mere transcription of Western male capitalist social perspectives, or as the deformed handicraft of the prisonhouse of language” as “hopelessly naive and reductionistic.” Or to Alan Sokal, the leftist physicist from NYU who famously hoaxed a deconstructionist journal and exposed their pseudo-intellectual ravings as vapid and unworthy of serious scholars.

Bramwell hits on the main problem not only with Goldberg’s thesis but with all such shallow comparisons of political ideology:

In the meantime, one can make out three reasons for calling liberals the true fascists. First, Goldberg points out that liberalism and fascism have many elements in common. Both fascists and liberals favor a minimum wage, an expansive social safety net, heavy regulation of industry, and redistributive taxation, but stop short of advocating the abolition of private property. Both scorn constitutional limits on government, indulge in economic populism, and see the working classes as their natural constituencies. Both distrust bourgeois values and traditional religion. On these points and others, Goldberg observes, not only do liberalism and fascism agree, but they reject the ideology of the American conservative movement.

That liberalism and fascism happen to overlap is not surprising. One can find just as many similarities between fascism and movement conservatism: both assail communism, exaggerate security threats, rationalize wars of aggression, and uphold nationalism (what sentimentalists call patriotism) and its symbols (flags, founding myths, worship of national heroes). Nothing in logic compels the ideas of liberalism, fascism, or movement conservatism to cohere into a system. On the contrary, creative theorists can mix sundry political ideas as freely as the ingredients of a cocktail. Given the vast range of questions to which competing ideologies purport to provide answers, the real surprise would be if any two ideologies had nothing in common at all.

Goldberg nonetheless sees ideologies as discrete wholes. He makes much of his discovery, for example, that the Nazis supported organic farming and animal rights and even goes so far as to admonish us to “grapple with the fact that we’ve seen this sort of thing before.” Readers can spare themselves the energy. That Nazism and contemporary liberalism both promote healthy living is as meaningless a finding as that bloody marys and martinis may both be made with gin. Repeatedly, Goldberg fails to recognize a reductio ad absurdum. He tells us that Himmler bemoaned the Christian persecution of witches, just like Wiccan feminists do today, that Hitler once described his doctrine as “reality-based,” just like today’s progressives describe theirs, and that Mussolini was quite smart “by the standards of liberal intellectuals today.” In no case does Goldberg uncover anything more ominous than a coincidence.

In short, it sounds like this book is every bit as absurd as I was sure it would be.